Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Article excerpt

Abide with Me, by Elizabeth Strout (Random House; $24.95). The handsome minister Tyler Caskey, of West Annett, Maine, is beloved by his parishioners because he really does think they're all God's children. But in the bleak autumn of 1959, more than a year after the death of his wife, Tyler is still awash in grief. The man who once held them rapt from the pulpit now appears ridiculous up there--"like a big tractor being driven by a teenage kid, slipping in and out of gear"--and his daughter has started screaming and spitting in kindergarten. How can he lead them if he himself is lost? Just as she did in her first novel, "Amy and Isabelle," Strout has created an absorbing world peopled by characters who argue the merits of canned cranberry sauce and using one's turn signal; meanwhile, dark fears about Freud and Khrushchev run beneath the surface of their lives like water under ice. With superlative skill, Strout challenges us to examine what makes a good story--and what makes a good life.

The Big Why, by Michael Winter (Bloomsbury; $24.95). Winter's spartan novel re-creates an episode in the life of the American artist Rockwell Kent, who, in 1914, left New York City for Brigus, Newfoundland, a bleak hamlet populated by fishermen, seal hunters, and an Arctic explorer. Kent, known in Manhattan as much for his temper and his philandering as for his woodcuts, wanted to lie low, and spent the winter hunkered down in a pup tent on the second floor of a freezing borrowed house. Before long, Kent began to attract suspicion as a possible German spy. (Among other things, he professed a love of German music and wrote "Bomb Shop" in Gothic letters on his studio door.) The next year, he was deported. Winter, who grew up in Newfoundland, creates a frugal voice for Kent's conversations with himself--ornery, reflective, intimate, lewd--and in doing so constructs an indelible portrait of the artist as outsider. …

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